Before making a wine habit an occupation, guest contributor John Nugent (pictured below) managed online marketing productions for pharmaceutical clients and for JibJab Media in Brooklyn, working with going concerns like Nickelodeon and Kraft. Before that, he met his wife/co-owner of Colorado Wine Company, Jennifer Morgan (also pictured below), at a sinking ship of a dotcom in L.A., where the two shot Nerf guns and rode motor scooters through the cubicles right into each other's arms.
John is also the author of the Colo. Wine Co.'s twice-monthly newsletter, which never fails to make the Editorializing staff LOL. Subscribe today or risk missing the next installment of "Wine Paraphernalia That Makes Us Uncomfortable and/or Scared" (W.P.T.M.U.U.A.O.S. for short).
Wine is intimidating. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you wine, get you drunk or both.
WHY is wine intimidating? Well, let's say you remember a wonderful wine, and you also remember that the word "Rioja" appeared on the label. Good job! But Rioja is not just how we refer to the wine; it's also the region where the wine is made. And the grape is Tempranillo, also known as Cencibel, Ojo, Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto de Torro, Ull de Llebre and Tinta Roriz. In the U.S., however, we prominently display the name of the grape, frequently at the expense of the name of the region. So we'll say, "That was a great Zinfandel," not, "That was a great Paso Robles." Wine is intimidating because the terminology used to categorize it can be confusing.
Time to drink! Now swirl, sniff, taste, make toilet-flushing sounds while sucking in, avoid snarfing wine, swallow, exhale for final scent analysis, nod up and down and say things like "pencil lead," "cat pee," "dried violets" and "Meyer lemon" (God forbid the wine should actually suggest a regular old lemon) and ... SCENE. Wine is intimidating because tasting it is associated with the wacky ritual depicted above, and then there's that pesky lingo thing again. Maybe you'll catch a note of lemon somewhere in your sip, but so much of the verbiage used to describe wine involves "flavors" you really don't want to roll around on your tongue.
Put aside all the wine blogs, wine dictionaries and 70-page restaurant wine lists for a minute and remember only this: Wine is one of the last products of place.Wine is intimidating for the same reason art, literature, sex, theater and food can be intimidating — because finding a common language to discuss something that is fundamentally subjective requires experience; it requires experience doing it (so many pours, so little time) and it requires experience talking about it (recently overheard: "The lychee nose on this Malvasia Bianca makes me want to bathe in it").
People who've actually logged Malcolm Gladwell's magic 10,000 hours on their way to expertise are generally excited to share their war stories (think Wilt Chamberlain) and genuinely don't care that you don't know the difference between dolcetto and Barolo.
But there ARE a handful of folks between novice and expert who are loud, insecure and boastful, who scare the beginners at the dinner party, causing them to dismiss wine as a lame, showy stage for people with a lot of money and a lot of time on their hands. Run — don't walk — from those people.
Put aside these blowhards and all the wine blogs, wine dictionaries and 70-page restaurant wine lists for a minute and remember only this: Wine is one of the last products of place. That laundry basket you picked up from Target is from a place: Guangdong Province. It was made in the same building where they also make headboards, banquet chairs, commode chairs, bar stools and something called "the trolley."
Sancerre, on the other hand, is a fantastic dry white wine you can only get from the 10 square miles of Sancerre, in the Loire Valley of France. In Sancerre, they can only make their whites from sauvignon blanc grapes and every year, a panel of tasters must taste each of the winery's products blind, and if the Sancerre doesn't taste like Sancerre ought to, the winery doesn't get to put "Sancerre" on the label.
This sense of place in winemaking is best summed up by one of the greatest words we've ever stolen from the French: "terroir" (tair-WAHR). "Terroir" is the combination of earth, climate and culture that results in a consistent and singular expression in a wine. When someone mentions the terroir of Sancerre, they specifically mean "the left bank of the Loire River, where limestone soil nurtures sauvignon blanc vines in a Continental climate and where farming techniques are precisely mirrored generation after generation." [Editor's note: "Terra" is Latin for "land" — and the root of "territory"]. As you can imagine, in the world of wine, "terroir" is quite a powerful word.
Do you have to know this word to enjoy wine? Of course not; you don't have to know anything about wine to enjoy it, which is why it's mindboggling that wine has engendered this culture of one-upmanship among wine dorks and collectors (being a wine dork AND collector, I mean this in the most familiar way). But if you've ever had that unforgettable moment when food and wine came to a synthesis in your mouth that made you feel like you'd been missing something all your life, you know how critical it is to understand what went on in that moment so you can recreate it. Gathering a few facts about the terroir of the wine will help.
Here's a word you should never, ever, ever, in a gazillion years use: "undrinkable."Now that you know how the word "terroir" can put you on the trail of your favorite tastes in wine, here's a word you should never, ever, ever, in a gazillion years use: "undrinkable." The word "undrinkable" suggests that the human body literally cannot process the juice. The polite way to reject a wine is to say, "It's not for me," or if you must be direct, "I really hate this wine." [Editor's note: If you're feeling cheeky, you can paraphrase Dorothy Parker with something like, "This must be from the year the grapes failed and they used summer squash instead."]
If, in fact, you don't care for a wine, no problem — wine has many more flavors than Baskin-Robbins so you still have a wide-open road ahead of you. But calling something "undrinkable" in a restaurant, winery or wine store suggests that the assistant winemakers, the winemaker, the winery owner, the importer, the distributor, the store or restaurant owner, the sommelier, the waiters and thousands of winos before you got a wine so wrong that it absolutely MUST be horrible to everyone else on the planet.
Again, the language we use to describe wine is impossibly subjective, which can make talking about it (among other subjects concerning personal taste) a bit daunting. Getting a handle on "terroir" may render you undaunted — and happily under the table for years to come.